A column of news and updates of the Boston Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest), which celebrates the Boston area’s rich heritage of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton music and dance with a grassroots, musician-run winter music festival and other events during the year. – Sean Smith
Music not just for dancing – The contra dance tradition is as venerable a New England institution as fall foliage, snowy winters and Red Sox pennant fever. The tradition, with connections to Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic music, not only survives but thrives, thanks to many creative and energetic young musicians — including a number in the Greater Boston area.
This month’s BCMFest Celtic Music Monday concert, “BIDAwhile: Contra and Celtic,” which takes place April 11 at Harvard Square’s Club Passim, will feature two local bands, Murphy’s Shadow and Nor’easter, culled from this new generation of contra dance musicians.
The members of both bands are active in the Boston Intergenerational Dance Advocates (BIDA), a recent addition to the roster of organizations supporting contra and other traditional dance. BIDA holds a monthly contra dance at Cambridge’s Masonic Hall as well as workshops and other events. [Information on BIDA is available at www.bidadance.org]
Since forming in 2008, Nor’easter — which is comprised of fiddler Cedar Stanistreet, guitarist/mandolinist Max Newman and pianist Julie Vallimont — has become a fixture in the contra dance circuit, playing at dances throughout and outside New England, as well as at other venues including BCMFest.
Vallimont also supplies the piano for Murphy’s Shadow, which includes fiddler Brendan Carey Block (of Annalivia) and guitarist/mandolinist/vocalist Eric McDonald, who also plays with Block in another contra dance band, Matching Orange.
“There’s definitely a big Celtic component to contra,” says Vallimont. “It’s not surprising if you think about how the Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton communities have taken root in New England down through the years. Contra dance music reflects so many influences in New England, whether traditional or contemporary.”
Contra dance music, and the performance of it, has changed significantly in the past few decades, Vallimont says. Where once community “orchestra”-type ensembles or local musicians might have provided the music, pioneering groups such as Wild Asparagus and Nightingale paved the way for progressive contra music bands using more complex arrangements.
“There are different ways of thinking about the music now, and even the instrumentation,” she says. “When I play piano with Murphy’s Shadow, for instance, I don’t feel completely like an accompanist; I can interact in other ways with the other instruments.”
Vallimont, despite her considerable involvement in contra dance and BIDA — she serves on the association’s board — is a relative newcomer to the scene, having only started playing about six years ago. She credits BIDA for aiding her immersion into the music.
“One of the things BIDA seeks to do is to offer opportunities for musicians as well as dancers to mingle, to pass along what they know to one another — transmitting this information is what helps keep the tradition alive and well.”
“BIDAwhile: Contra and Celtic” begins at 8 p.m. in Club Passim, which is located at 47 Palmer Street in Harvard Square. Admission is $12, $6 for members of Passim, WGBH and WUMB. See clubpassim.org for reservations and other information.